The photographs in Robert Lyons’ Pictures from the Next Day have a clearly-defined subject: Walter Niemiec, an elderly Massachusetts man who Lyons meets by circumstance. The book, in an accordion pleat binding that gives the images a slow linear momentum, invites us into Niemiec’s home to see how he lives and the stuff of his pursuits: model airplanes, guns, and fishing. But while Pictures from the Next Day asks us to look at the world of Walter Niemiec, the project is also a response, at least in part, to photographs that Lyons did not make of his ailing mother. Lyons explains in a statement at the end of the book: “This work is an ode to life, youth, past whims, and what the days ahead might look like. It is as much inspired by Walter Niemiec as by the declining health of my mother, who forbade me to make any images of her in her remaining days.” Once we know this, we cannot look at these pictures in the same way again; meaning in photographs depends on the context in which we encounter them, no matter how thick or thin. How does the absence of one set of images inform how we read the other?
The book consists almost entirely of pictures made within the home of Walter Niemiec, the then-85 year old uncle of the studio assistant who Lyons hired when moving back to central Massachusetts in 2008 after living abroad for several years. Lyons describes Niemiec’s world with closely-observed photographs made in Niemiec’s home, with its wood paneling and wallpaper and appliances dating from the 1960’s through the 1980’s. It’s all plastic, metal, wood and paper; Jesus, Snoopy, and the Red Sox. Fishing lures are neatly arranged in a case. Model aircraft magazines are stacked and bound, and small colorful planes hang from the ceiling and rest on tables. A folded flag rests neatly on a typewriter. Lyons’ photographs suggest that Niemiec’s world became complete some three decades ago and has been maintained according to the logic of that moment ever since.
The photographs are evocative, full of symbols, colors, and design styles that speak to past eras, but they are also provocative in the way that they deal with time itself. The pictures describe the present as an accumulation of the past, in the form of Niemiec’s personal possessions, shored up against the future. But Lyons draws attention to slippages in how we think about time: neither past nor present are fixed moments, after all – both are fluid and continuously in the process of being redefined. Lyons describes Niemiec’s home as almost a time capsule, a place where time appears to have slowed down to such a degree that the world outside no longer bears an influence on it, even as it clearly exists in the present. We will not mistake Lyons’ pictures for ones made in the 1980’s when the digital watches and cassette radios were new. The photographs betray the look of things that have simply been for a long while, no matter how well kept.
What do we learn about a subject from seeing their face? We only meet Niemiec himself a handful of times. The first time we see him, a skewed lampshade behind his head mimics his posture as he speaks on the phone – he is animated, in his world, where he has made his own order. We meet him again later in the same spot, this time in the evening, gazing back at the camera and the lampshade is straight now; here he seems less sure as he regards himself being regarded. We see him twice more, once from behind and once in a picture of him as a younger man. Lyons’ photographs of Niemiec reveal aspect, not essence. Niemiec had been a stranger to Lyons, who he came to know at least in part by photographing him and his things. What would it have meant for Lyons to photograph his mother, someone much closer and more important to him, someone who knew him before he was a photographer, an entirely different subject? Without speculating about Lyons’ relationship with his mother, the question remains: how much can we see and know of a person from seeing their image, whether they are only recently met, or connected through the most intimate human relationship?
Two modes of modern portraiture, seemingly polar opposites to one another, draw admiration: there is portraiture that attests to reveal in some way the subject’s true self (“yes, this is the very soul of that person!”) and also, in contrast, portraiture that evokes mystery and a glamour of the unknowable. These modes respond to our modern sense of the unique individual as an essential category of being in the world, moving through time and space as a unit, a subject to one’s self, an object to others. But Lyons rigorously aims for a more complicated area between these ideals of mystery and supposedly complete knowledge. His pictures are not so much about Niemiec as they are about his encounter with Niemiec. He wants to show us how much and how little he knows of his subject, and his photographs don’t claim what they can’t account for. Lyons portrays Niemiec as a man who has lived a long life, who has found meaning in his own particular ways. The book’s grace comes from the humility and respect with which Lyons recognizes this. It’s a beautiful book; Lyons gives us a view on a life, without judgment.